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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 17 Commercial and Literary Music
Richard Taruskin

Real literary music—indeed a virtual literary revolution in music—is looming up on our horizon, but before immersing ourselves in it and becoming absorbed in its consequences, there is a loose end to tie up. “Loose end” hardly does justice to a composer thought by many of his contemporaries to be the most brilliant musician alive, but Orlando di Lasso is a blessedly unclassifiable figure who sits uncomfortably in any slot. It was his unparalleled versatility, the very quality that makes him retrospectively a loose end, that made him such a paragon in his day.

One of the last of the great peripatetic Netherlanders, Lasso was born in Mons, now an industrial town in southern (French-speaking) Belgium, in 1532. His baptismal name was Roland de Lassus, but by the age of twelve he was already a professional chorister in the service of the Duke of Mantua, where he adopted the Italian name by which he was and remains best known. By the1570s he was the most famous composer in Europe, hailed by the French poet Pierre de Ronsard as “the more than divine Orlando, who like a bee has sipped all the most beautiful flowers of the ancients and moreover seems alone to have stolen the harmony of the heavens to delight us with it on earth, surpassing the ancients and making himself the unique wonder of our time.”8 From a humanist there could scarcely be any higher praise.

Lasso: The Cosmopolite Supreme

fig. 17-3 Orlando di Lasso in an engraving published in 1599 by a printer who did not know that the composer (described as being “in the 67th year of his age”) had been dead for five years.

From 1556 until his death in 1594 (the same year as Palestrina’s), Lasso served faithfully as court and chapel musician to the Dukes of Bavaria in Munich. Thus he was born a French speaker, was educated in Italy, and reached his creative maturity in Germany, making him the very model of the cosmopolitan musician of his age. But whereas the earlier cosmopolitan ideal—the ideal of the ars perfecta, brought to its peak by Palestrina—had been ecumenical (that is, reflective of religious universalism and hence nation-transcending), Lassus was brought up in the age of music-printing and was an eager and ambitious child of the burgeoning age of worldly music-commerce. Thus his brand of cosmopolitanism was not ecumenical but polyglot. He and Palestrina were complementary figures, and in many respects incommensurable ones; between them they summed up the contradictory ideals and leanings of a musical world in transition.

Lasso’s appointments were secular, though they did entail the writing of huge quantities of service music, and his allegiance was always a dual one: to his patrons (with whom he was on terms of unprecedented familiarity and from whom he actually received a patent of nobility in his own right), and to his many publishers. During his lifetime a staggering seventy-nine printed volumes of his music (and only his music) were issued, a total that leaves his nearest competitors in a cloud of dust; and his work was included in forty miscellaneous publications as well. Lasso volumes continued to be issued posthumously all over Europe—Graz, Munich, Paris, Antwerp—until 1619. His output covered every viable sacred and secular genre of continental Europe: Masses (almost all of them parody settings), motets (including many full calendrical cycles in various genres), and vernacular settings in all the languages he spoke. His work has never been published in its entirety; his sons tried to issue his entire backlog after his death but gave up in despair. Nobody knows exactly how much music Lasso wrote, but his published works, including those published only in modern times, number more than two thousand items.

Lasso: The Cosmopolite Supreme

fig. 17-4 Concert at the Bavarian court chapel directed by Orlando di Lasso from the keyboard (frontispiece by the Bavarian court painter Hans Mielich to a manuscript now in the Bavarian State Library, Munich).

From this vast assortment any selection at all would be invidious and unrepresentative. So without undue hand-wringing we will limit ourselves to what was most representative of the age rather than the man. We will get our most vivid quick impression of Lasso’s special character if we forgo his magnificent legacy of Catholic church music (where, after all, he had competitors and counterparts) and sample the full range of his secular work, which was unique, choosing a single piece in each of four languages. Each of them, moreover, illustrates this cagey chameleon-composer’s bent for witty mixtures and juxtapositions of styles.

Je l’ayme bien (Ex. 17-10) is from Lasso’s very first publication, a miscellany called D’Orlando di Lassus il primo libro dovesi contengono madrigali, vilanesche, canzoni francesi e motetti a quattro voci (“The First Book by Orlando di Lasso, containing madrigals, vilanescas, French chansons, and motets for four voices”) published in Antwerp by Susato in 1555, when the composer was 23 years old. The Parisian chanson style, by then a quarter century old, has been elegantly reconciled to the ars perfecta in Lasso’s setting, in which a striking melody that might have prompted an exquisite harmonization from Claudin is given an elaborate imitative exposition, which supplies the exquisite harmonies all the same.

Matona (i.e., “Madonna”) mia cara (Ex. 17-11), informally known as “the lansquenet’s serenade,” was printed rather late in Lasso’s career, in a 1581 volume of “low style” Italian songs (Libro de villanelle, moresche, et altre canzoni) published in Paris. It is thought, however, to date from an earlier period, perhaps Lasso’s earliest, when he accompanied his first employer, Ferrante Gonzaga of Mantua, on expeditions throughout Italy. Lansquenets were Swiss or German lance-bearing mercenaries (soldiers of fortune) who enlisted as infantrymen in foreign parts. The word itself is a jocular French corruption of Landsknecht, German for “trooper” or “foot soldier”. There was also an Italian variant, lanzichenecco, and Italian armies such as Ferrante’s were full of them.

Lasso: The Cosmopolite Supreme

ex. 17-10 Orlando di Lasso, Je l’ayme bien

There could be no better emblem of Lasso’s inveterate cosmopolitanism than this silly Italian song, written by a Fleming in imitation of a clumsy German suitor who barely speaks his lady’s language. The genre to which it belongs, called villanella or town song (or to be excruciatingly precise, a todesca, meaning a villanella with a ridiculous German accent), was a strophic song with refrains and hence the direct (and deliberately debased) descendant of the frottola or “trifling song” of old. The refrains are usually nonsensical or onomatopoetic; here, it takes the form of the lovesick lansquenet’s feeble attempts to serenade his lady on the lute.

Lasso: The Cosmopolite SupremeLasso: The Cosmopolite Supreme

ex. 17-11 Orlando di Lasso, Matona mia cara

Another jokey piece is the one shown in Ex. 17-12 that begins “Audite nova” (“Hear the news!”) in the solemn manner of a Latin motet, but that quickly shifts over to a preposterous tale about a dimwitted farmer (“Der Bawr von Eselskirchen,” literally “The farmer from Ass-Church”) and his honking goose, the latter rendered musically in the manner we have come by now to expect. The song comes from a volume of miscellaneous items in various languages that Lasso published in Munich in 1573. German songs suffered the most precipitous decline in tone between the heyday of the Tenorlied, about a half- or quarter-century earlier, and the rustic, mock-homespun Lieder of Lasso’s time, which were really villanelle set to German words. The nobler Tenorlied, as we will see in the next chapter, had gone out of the secular tradition into a new sacred domain.

Lasso: The Cosmopolite SupremeLasso: The Cosmopolite Supreme

ex. 17-12 Orlando di Lasso, Audite nova

Finally, as if to atone for representing so imposing and varied an output as Lasso’s with fluff (albeit the kind of fluff no one else could have composed), it is time to consider a serious Latin setting. But here, too, there were genres in which Lasso stood virtually alone by virtue of his wit and intellectual elan. One of them was the setting of classical or classicistic texts, the latter being the work of humanist writers in imitation of the classics. His most notorious work in this category was the Prophetiae Sibyllarum (“The sibylline prophecies”), published posthumously in 1600 but perhaps written as early as 1560. (They were performed before King Charles IX of France, whom they astonished, in 1571.)

The sibyls, according to one authority, were in antiquity “women who in a state of ecstasy proclaimed coming events, generally unpleasant, spontaneously and without being asked or being connected with any particular oracle site.”9 Over the formative years of Christian religion, the tradition of the sibyls was assimilated to that of biblical prophecy. The sybilline prophecies—originally collected in a book supposedly sold in the sixth century bce by the Cumaean sibyl, who lived in a cave near Naples, to Tarquin, the last of the legendary kings of Rome—came to be read increasingly as foretelling not natural disasters or the like but the coming of Christ and the Last Judgment. (Hence the reference to the sibyl in the Dies Irae sequence, known to us since chapter 3.)

In the fifteenth century, the number of sibyls was stabilized at twelve, a number full of Christian resonances (the minor prophets, the apostles). The twelve sibyls are best known today from Michelangelo’s renderings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The twelve anonymous prophetic poems Lasso set to music appeared for the first time as a supplement to a 1481 Venetian edition of a treatise on the sibyls as prophets of Christ by Filippo Barbieri, the Inquisitor of Sicily. They were reprinted in Basel, Switzerland, in 1545, and that, presumably, is how they found their way to the composer.

Lasso: The Cosmopolite Supreme

fig. 17-5 The Cumean sibyl, as rendered by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome.

Lasso: The Cosmopolite Supreme

ex. 17-13a Orlando di Lasso, Prophetiae Sibyllarum, Prologue

These venerable quasi-pagan mystical texts as summarized by a Christian classicistic poet obviously demanded some form of unusual musical treatment to render their uncanny enigmatic contents. Drawing on a kind of humanistic musical speculation that was just then rife in Italy (and to which we will return in a couple of chapters), Lasso adopted a style of extreme, tonally disorienting chromaticism (as he proudly proclaims in a three-line poetic prologue of his own contriving), coupled with a starkly homorhythmic, vehemently declamatory manner that brought the weird words and the weirder harmonies very much to the fore. The result is hair-raising, not only as an expression of religious mysticism, but as the revelation (so to speak) of an alternative path for music that challenged the absolute validity of the ars perfecta. The two extracts included in Ex. 17-13 are the prologue, with its brash expository sweep by fifth- and third-relations from triadic harmonies on the extreme sharp side (as far as B major) as far flatward as E-flat major; and the end of the Cymmerian sibyl’s prophecy, which contains the most radical single progression in the cycle, entailing the direct motion in the altus, on the last line of text, through a diminished third (now how are you supposed to solmize that?).


(8) Ronsard, Livre des mélanges (2nd ed., 1572), in Oliver Strunk, Source Readings in Music History (New York: Norton, 1950), p. 289.

(9) Alfons Kurfess, “Christian Sibyllines,” in E. Hennecke, New Testament Apocrypha (Philadelphia, 1965); quoted in Peter Bergquist, “The Poems of Orlando di Lasso’s Prophetiae Sibyllarum and Their Sources,” JAMS XXXII (1979): 521.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 17 Commercial and Literary Music." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-017006.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 17 Commercial and Literary Music. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-017006.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 17 Commercial and Literary Music." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-017006.xml